Postmodernism, Part 32: The Commune and Communism

What is postmodernism? Is it a problem?  The following continues a series of posts explaining postmodernism.  It is based on the excellent Explaining Postmodernism: Skepticism and Socialism from Rousseau to Foucault, by Prof. Stephen Hicks.  (Additional support includes The Fall of Paris, by Alistair Horne; The Red Flag: A History of Communism, by David Priestland; Civil War in France: The Paris Commune, by Karl Marx and V. I. Lenin; The Paris Commune, by Ernest Bax; Socialism by Ludwig von Mises.)


Enlightenment and Darkness

Marxist postmodernism seeks to overthrow modernism.  Modernism’s political philosophy proposes reason, individualism, liberal democracy, and free markets.  Postmodernist philosophy is based on the metaphysical nihilism of (Nazi) Martin Heidegger.  Postmodernist radical left politics don’t flow from Heidegger’s philosophy, but from twentieth century Marxists’ crisis of faith (in the face of undeniable Marxist catastrophe).

Rousseau’s Revolutionary Politics

The postmodernists took refuge in the totalitarian collectivist Rousseau.  Rousseau’s ideas inflamed the French Revolution and Reign of Terror, leading to Napoleon’s beatdown of Germany.

Right Collectivism

Right Collectivism morphed out of the German Counter-Enlightenment (Kant, Herder, Fichte, Hegel), Rousseau, and Napoleonic stress disorder.  The Germans gave Rousseau their own twist: hero worship, state worship, and dialectical history (plus German supremacy).

Left Collectivism

Left Collectivism also came from the German Counter-Enlightenment, plus passion: disgust and romanticism (that valued passion, violence, radicalism, and revolution, but not morality).  Marx and Engels (disgusted at industrial working conditions) mated Hegel with Darwin to concoct “scientific socialism” (revealed history, Communist prophecy, and pseudo-science).  In 1847, the Communist League published their Communist Manifesto.

Revolutionary Disappointment

Marx and Engels were frustrated with the Revolutions of 1848.  The French Second Republic’s socialist experiments flopped (triggering leftist uprisings – crushed).  German Communism flopped.  (Exit Marx, stage left.  Enter Bismarck, stage right.)  In Italy, Mazzini and Garibaldi were failed and returned to exile.  Bismarck united northern Germany using “blood and iron”.

Red Star Rising

The Franco-Prussian War united victorious Germany, but divided defeated France (triggering insurrection, civil war, and the Paris Commune – brutally crushed), setting the stage for the World Wars, Soviets, and Nazis.

The Commune and Communism

Marx used the Paris Commune of 1871 as a “teachable moment”.  Marx penned his dire “lessons learned”, The Civil War in France (his most influential work after The Communist Manifesto).  Lenin and Stalin expanded on his ideas and put them into action (terribly).

Marx’s Teachable Moment

In London, Marx and Engels (frustrated by proletariat intransigence) were busily making Communism “scientific” by grafting Darwinian notions onto their sketchy Hegelian metaphysics.  Their rosy dreams of a Workers Paradise were mutating into a grimy Dictatorship of the Proletariat with industrial schemes of central planning.

karl-marxKarl Marx

The Paris Commune took Marx quite by surprise.  Marx’s “First International” (an organization of socialist parties of different nations) was (predictably) fractious, split between authoritarians (like Marx) and anarchists (like Mikhail Bakunin).

The Commune gave Marx notoriety as the “Red-Terrorist Doctor” and gave Bakunin a shot at some action.  In France, Marx’s International was sprouting, spreading propaganda, and fomenting insurrections in the French provinces.  Bakunin, himself, went to Lyon to foment insurrection.

Marx’s spin on the Commune was propagandist and polemical, but he got much right:

  • Class struggle.  Marx correctly identifies a powerful class element in the Commune.  Paris suffered the sort of “third world” industrial misery described by Engels.  The Paris slums of Belleville and Montemarte were fetid breeding grounds of unrest.
  • Revolution betrayed.  Marx was correct that the bourgeois betrayed the working class in previous revolutions (1815, 1830, 1848).  Working class mobs fruitlessly manned the barricades and shed blood.  The Second Republic and Empire were thoroughly corrupt and decadent.  (Marxist revolutions are treacherous, as well, as Bakunin warned and Trotsky showed.  Bastiat argued that the revolutions were shams that made impossible promises.)
  • Turning point.  Marx was correct that the Paris Commune marked a new phase in the Marxist battle.  (Marx’s usual wishful-thinking became a self-fulfilling prophecy when taken up by his adherents.)

Marx claimed that the Commune had promised a new (Communist) political form:

  • Good government.  The Commune would have delivered “cheap” (efficient and ethical) government (free of corruption), abolishing and replacing oppression with self rule.
  • Emancipation of labor.  The Commune would have appropriated the means of production (“changing the character of labor”).  (This is the “joy of labor” idea that, under socialism, “labor awakens feelings of satisfaction, not of pain,” wrote economist Ludwig von Mises.  Yet, he said, if labor and its rewards are disconnected, we will always feel like we are doing more than our share.)
  • Enlightenment.  The Commune  freed the workers from (politically oppressive) religious education.
  • Abolition of debt.  The Commune would have freed the poor from their debts, including rural peasants (who opposed Paris radicalism).
  • Civic virtue. The Commune  ended crime (murder, robbery, assault).  (People rarely ventured out after dark.)
leninEmancipation of Labor

Marx justified the acts committed by the Paris Commune:

  • Arson.  The Communards were justified in setting Paris ablaze, he argued, because this was war.  (C’est la guerre.)
  • Murder.  The Communards were justified in murdering the hostages, he argued, because the Government had executed Communard prisoners (in violation of the laws of war).  (This is a matter of perspective, of course.  To the Government, the insurrectionists were mutineers or treasonous rebels.)
Lessons Learned

Marx criticized the Communards’ mistakes:

  • The Communards should have taken up arms and destroyed their enemies (before they could rebuild).
  • The military command (the Central Committee) surrendered power too soon (to the elected Commune) and should have retained it to destroy their enemies.  (Of course, “enemies” is a fluid concept, as demonstrated by the Reign of Terror and the Russian Revolution’s Red Terror.)

As with the Communist Manifesto, Marx closed in dramatic style:

  • “There can be neither peace nor truce between the working men of France and the appropriators of their produce,” Marx declared, “The battle must break out again and again”.
  • “The French working class is the only advance guard of the proletariat”, he stated.
  • “The Commune will forever be celebrated as the glorious harbinger of a new society,” Marx said.

The history of the Commune’s exterminators, Marx thundered, “has already been nailed to that eternal pillory from which all the prayers of their priest will not avail to redeem them.”  (Drops mic.)

Lenin’s Lessons Learned

After the failed Russian Revolution of 1905, Lenin expanded on Marx’s lessons learned:

  • Go big or go home.  “The proletariat stopped half-way,” Lenin wrote, and were misled by “dreams of establishing a higher justice”.  The Communards should have seized property and taken over the banks, he said.
  • Ruthlessness.  “The second mistake was excessive magnanimity,” Lenin wrote, “instead of destroying its enemies, it sought to exert moral influence on them.”  (Lenin would practice what he preached.)

The proletariat will not forget the lessons of the Commune, wrote Lenin:

  • By any means necessary.  “The proletariat should not ignore peaceful methods of struggle,” Lenin wrote, “but it must never forget that … the class struggle assumes the form of armed conflict and civil war”.
  • Purges.  “There are times when the interests of the proletariat will call for ruthless extermination of its enemies,” said Lenin.

The British Marxist Ernest Bax, a contemporary of Lenin, offered his own lessons learned:

  • War.  The Communards were too scrupulous, wrote Bax, they “did not appreciate the ethics of insurrection … [and] should have been guided by the French maxim a la guerre, comme a la guerre (in war, as in war).”  The Government was the rebel power and should have been crushed. (C’est la guerre.)
  • Amorality.  The Communards were too sensitive “to bourgeois public opinion.  The first thing for [a revolutionary leader] to learn is a healthy contempt for the official public opinion of the ‘civilized world’.  He must … harden his heart against … its ‘indignation’, its ‘abomination’ … and must learn to smile at all the [name-calling].”
  • Big Lie.  The tool for controlling public opinion, wrote Bax, is media control because “public opinion possessed of wavering or of no definite principles … takes the impress of any statement that it finds repeated a few times without very decisive and publicly-made contradiction”.  (“A lie told often enough becomes the truth,” said Lenin, more succinctly.)

Lenin and Stalin logically extended Marx.  Their ideas infused the Red Terror and Stalinist purges.  As we’ll see, the Red Terror bears the indelible stamp of the earlier Reign of Terror, further linking Marx and Rousseau.


Marx’s stand on the Paris Commune split the International.  One of Marx’s fiercest critics was Mikhail Bakunin (whose baleful warnings against Marx came all too true).  Next: Part 33, The Anarchist Bakunin.